Waking up to a new year
by Jennifer Chu for MIT News
Boston MA (SPX) Aug 26, 2013
From their measurements of Kepler 78b, the team determined that the planet is about 40 times closer to its star than Mercury is to our sun. The star around which Kepler 78b orbits is likely relatively young, as it rotates more than twice as fast as the sun – a sign that the star has not had as much time to slow down. Image: Cristina Sanchis Ojeda
In the time it takes you to complete a single workday, or get a full night’s sleep, a small fireball of a planet 700 light-years away has already completed an entire year.
Researchers at MIT have discovered an Earth-sized exoplanet named Kepler 78b that whips around its host star in a mere 8.5 hours – one of the shortest orbital periods ever detected.
The planet is extremely close to its star – its orbital radius is only about three times the radius of the star – and the scientists have estimated that its surface temperatures may be as high as 3,000 degrees Kelvin, or more than 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. In such a scorching environment, the top layer of the planet is likely completely melted, creating a massive, roiling ocean of lava.
What’s most exciting to scientists is that they were able to detect light emitted by the planet – the first time that researchers have been able to do so for an exoplanet as small as Kepler 78b. This light, once analyzed with larger telescopes, may give scientists detailed information about the planet’s surface composition and reflective properties.
Kepler 78b is so close to its star that scientists hope to measure its gravitational influence on the star. Such information may be used to measure the planet’s mass, which could make Kepler 78b the first Earth-sized planet outside our own solar system whose mass is known.
The researchers reported their discovery of Kepler 78b in The Astrophysical Journal.
In a separate paper, published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, members of that same group, along with others at MIT and elsewhere, observed KOI 1843.03, a previously discovered exoplanet with an even shorter orbital period: just 4 1/4 hours.
The group, led by physics professor emeritus Saul Rappaport, determined that in order for the planet to maintain its extremely tight orbit around its star, it would have to be incredibly dense, made almost entirely of iron – otherwise, the immense tidal forces from the nearby star would rip the planet to pieces.
“Just the fact that it’s able to survive there implies that it’s very dense,” says Josh Winn, an associate professor of physics at MIT, and co-author on both papers. “Whether nature actually makes planets that are dense enough to survive even closer in, that’s an open question, and would be even more amazing.”
Dips in the data
In their discovery of Kepler 78b, the team that wrote the Astrophysical Journal paper looked through more than 150,000 stars that were monitored by the Kepler Telescope, a NASA space observatory that surveys a slice of the galaxy. Scientists are analyzing data from Kepler in hopes of identifying habitable, Earth-sized planets.
The goal for Winn and his colleagues was to look for Earth-sized planets with very short orbital periods.
“We’ve gotten used to planets having orbits of a few days,” Winn says. “But we wondered, what about a few hours? Is that even possible? And sure enough, there are some out there.”